Dr. Eleanor Zelliot (Professor at the University of Pennsylvania) has done pioneering work on the Dalit Movement. In this interview she speaks with Yoginder Sikand about developing alternate forms of Dalit culture.
Q: How did you develop an interest in the Dalit Movement ?
A: I got interested in Ambedkar when I was reading widely for my Ph.D examinations, and found his name in most books which, however, had no analysis to explain his rise. I have been supporting the African-American movement since I was 14. So the comparable Indian movement was a natural subject for me.
Q: You have written a great deal on Dalit culture. How would you define that term ?
A: Every act, including a poem, song, object or design that a person who defines himself as a Dalit does or creates act of creation arising out of the fact of the consciousness of one's being a Dalit is a part of Dalit Culture.
Q. Call non-Dalits play any role in developing Dalit Culture ?
A. A white man cannot write Black literature, though he can write wonderfully well about Black society. Jobn Griffin, a White American sociologist, painted himself black, lived in a black ghetto for two months, and then wrote a book which be claimed faithfully represented an insider's view of Black society in America. But the blacks asserted that despite this attempt at identifying with them, he was unable to fully capture the story of their plight.
The same is true for the Dalits in India. Non-Dalits cannot write Dalit- literature, but they have a crucial role to play in facilitating its development. The social awakening brought about by non-Dalit reformers in Maharashtra such as Ranade, Agarkar and Bhandarkar did play a crucial role in the later rise of the Ambedkarite movement. A group of Maharashtrian non-Dalits were the first to publish radical literature written by Dalits. So, I see the possibility of non-Dalits being facilitators to the Dalit movement but not its guides or preachers. Non-Dalits cannot direct the Dalit Movement. When Gandhi announced that he was a "Harijan", that ended forever the possibility of his leadership of the Dalits.
Q. Do you, see the possibility of a radical liberation theology on Latin American lines emerging in Ambedkarite Buddhism today?
A. To a great extent, conversion to Buddhism has meant psychological liberation to many Dalits. The Dalits today appear to be moving towards a socially more engaged Buddhism, but not really in the direction of liberation theology. It is akin to the recent developments in Thai and Vietnamese Buddhism. There are several training institutes for the Buddhist Sangha in Maharashtra, but what is required are more lay teachers moving from one 'Vihara' or Dalit settlement to the other. There is also a pressing need to develop Buddhist cultural activities to transmit the message of social emancipation through dramas, folk songs etc. The cultural side of Buddhism bas been neglected by the Sangha. Buddhism appeals directly to the intellectual, but for the masses one requires more colour, more activity.
Q: But are these efforts radical enough or are they at best reformist?
A: I am not quite sure what the term "Revolution" really means today. Marxists in many countries are, while not ignoring macro-level issues, thinking in terms of local problems, grassroots level organizations and decentralized leadership. And as far as 'liberation theology' is concerned, I do not think it has as yet emerged in India and most certainly not in Hinduism. Instead, what has happened is that the secular Indian intelligentsia have left the field of religion completely to the conservatives and reactionaries. In such a situation, where is the possibility of liberation theology emerging ?
Q. Is it possible to creatively draw upon the epics, legends and collective memory of the Dalits and other oppressed groups to assist in their mobilization for social emancipation?
A. Such a venture would work wonders for arousing the awareness of the Dalits. Much work has to be done to collect the peoples' own versions of history - oral history - their stories and songs of defiance of caste oppression, etc. These can then be used by activists in the field in a creative way. Dalit culture and the Dalit movement cannot be built on the mere negative platform of anti-Brahminism. The infusing of Dalit culture with the images of the long-forgotten Dalit heroes would serve as a positive foundation of the Dalit cultural movement. Ambedkarites need also to make efforts to link their movement to local folk heroes and anti-caste charismatic leaders of the various Dalit castes so that its appeal could be much wider.
Q: Is it not the case that many Dalits today have almost turned Ambedkar into another divine prophet and thereby refuse to critically evaluate or re-interpret Ambedkarism?
A: It is true that many Dalit Buddhists are not going beyond Ambedkar. In the minds of these Dalits, Ambedkar was the one who gave them self-respect, and so they feel the same way about him as many other Indians feel about their "Gurus". As regards the need to creatively reinterpret Ambedkarism today, some Dalits do not seem to agree.
Q: Do you sense any danger to the Dalit Movement as the result of the growing challenge of Brahminical Hindu chauvinism?
A: The RSS is trying to co-opt Ambedkar. They even go to the extent of claiming that Hedgewar and Ambedkar had similar aims! If they really are admirers of Ambedkar they ought to denounce caste and convert to Buddhism as Ambedkar did! It is simply impossible to go back to the Varna System as some Hindu revivalists argue. In today's context only the Brahmin Varna has any meaning and sociological relevance. Even in the Varna System the Shudras are considered to be menials, so attempting to revive this system would not change the degraded status of the Dalits at all.
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